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Humor isn't lost in translation for 'Chinglish's' David Henry Hwang

The playwright mines the comedy of American-Chinese relations and miscommunications for his new Broadway play.

October 23, 2011|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Playwright David Henry Hwang.
Playwright David Henry Hwang. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — — David Henry Hwang's new Broadway comedy, "Chinglish," makes bright, mischievous sport of the language barrier that separates an American businessman from the Chinese authorities who hold the keys to a vast new market. The idea for the play was inspired by Hwang's own visits to China, where he was forced to rely on translators. A few Mandarin courses in college along with some work with private tutors weren't enough to exempt the playwright, a first-generation Chinese American, from the farcical limbo of being lost in translation.

"I've been going to China once or twice a year for the last five or six years," says Hwang, speaking at a table at Hurley's Saloon, a quick hop from the Longacre Theater, where the show is in previews. "It was mostly to talk about theater, because China became very interested in Broadway-style musicals. Since I happen to be the only nominally Chinese person who has written a Broadway show, I'd get called over for a lot of meetings. People had big projects and schemes, and none of it ever resulted in anything, except that I got to learn about what was going on over there."

Hwang, whose eager smile twinges with the slightest hint of irony, admits that he really didn't need to fly thousands of miles to confront this particular communication gap. "I have lots of relatives whose English ability was nominal to nonexistent," he says. "I have always learned just to struggle with the … 'I think she wants me to take her to the market, but I'm not sure.'"

But clearly these junkets to his ancestral homeland were worth the jet lag. They inspired not just his first Broadway play since "Golden Child" in 1998 but arguably his best one since "M. Butterfly," the 1988 Tony winner that catapulted Hwang into the national spotlight.

"When I started writing about Chinese Americans at the start of my career, I think the audience was interested in the immigrant story and, if anything, the appeal was that it was exotic," Hwang reflects with amiable precision. "We never thought that China would become cool or that it would end up as we are now looking at China as the world's largest economy in 20 years or less. I guess I lucked out because this was always my subject matter, but it has started to loom larger in the American consciousness."

Certainly, the play's topicality helped put it on the fast track to Broadway. After premiering in June at Chicago's Goodman Theatre under the direction of Leigh Silverman, "Chinglish" became that rare thing: A new American play that big-shot producers couldn't resist. (Silverman, who staged Hwang's last play, "Yellow Face," at the Mark Taper Forum and the New York Public Theater, guides the Broadway production at a vivacious clip as it wittily leaps between English and Mandarin dialogue and surtitles.)

"This show has gone to Broadway incredibly quickly," says Hwang. "It's a combination of producers feeling that it's a very relevant subject and that it's a comedy."

A comedy of ideas, to be exact. Hwang takes inspiration from such writers as Bertolt Brecht, George Bernard Shaw and Tom Stoppard, who employ humor in divergent ways to tackle societal problems and paradoxes. The brisk engagement of contemporary concerns lends "Chinglish" the feeling of an English play — think David Hare with a sportive Caryl Churchill streak — but Hwang is quick to assert that he's very much an American playwright, influenced as much by Sam Shepard's interrogations of identity as by the political movement that created multiculturalism.

"Chinglish" follows the fumbling exploits of Daniel (Gary Wilmes), a disgraced Enron executive looking for redemption by resurrecting his family's Ohio-based sign manufacturing business through lucrative Chinese contracts. Just when it seems as though all hope is lost, he tumbles into an adulterous relationship with Xi Yan (a fierce Jennifer Lim), the formidable vice minister of culture, who becomes an unexpected ally. Or does she? As with "M Butterfly," the characters, major and minor, are never simply who they appear to be. Identity is a riddle, made more confounding by cultural differences that are larger than the meanings of untranslatable words.

The play shuffles between public and private realms, exploring the mistakes that happen when assumptions are made about common values. There are as many hilarious mix-ups over vocabulary as there are over points of view. But perhaps the biggest guffaws come when characters grope to understand the changing place of their countries in the new world order, as when Daniel, in utter frustration at Xi's refusal to see her dominant position, loudly insists, "China — strong! America — weak!"

"Saying this out loud and making a joke about it seems a very cathartic experience for the audience," Hwang says.

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